University System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley told the Rotary Club of Dalton on Tuesday that affordable education is a key tenet of his leadership.
The same day, in Atlanta, the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the state's college officials, who argue they should not have to let DACA recipients pay cheaper, in-state tuition rates. The Board of Regents told the appeals court earlier this year that such students do not enjoy all the rights of citizens, even though they are "lawfully present."
Citing a 2015 memo from the U.S. Department of Education, the justices wrote Tuesday, "While DACA recipients 'may be eligible to receive in-State tuition under State law for their enrollment' that determination 'depends on State laws and policies.'"
In other words: University systems can charge in-state tuition for those students, but they do not have to.
Created as an executive order by President Barack Obama in 2012, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is a selective immigration enforcement policy. People who came to the United States illegally before they turned 16 could apply for temporary residency. The applicants also could not have any serious criminal record. They could apply to renew their residency every two years.
Last year, a group of DACA students in Georgia sued the state's Board of Regents members, arguing they should be able to pay in-state tuition rates like citizens who live there. A Fulton County Superior Court judge ruled in December that the colleges and universities did, in fact, have to offer the lower rates because the students are "lawfully present."
But the Board of Regents appealed, arguing that the DACA program does not give the students "lawful status." That would mean they don't get all the rights someone in the country legally receives.
Charles Kuck, an Atlanta immigration attorney who represented the DACA students, said he will challenge the ruling to the Georgia Supreme Court. He hopes to argue the case in 30-45 days. He said Tuesday that the appeals court justices did not properly wrestle with the board's policy, which states university administrators will verify students have "lawful presence" in the U.S. when they apply for in-state tuition.
DACA gives them lawful presence, he said.
"If the government writes the policy," he said, "they are required to live by that policy. They don't get to just willy-nilly say words mean different things."
Meanwhile, during a luncheon at the Dalton Golf & Country Club on Tuesday, Wrigley told an audience of judges, law enforcement administrators, education officials and business leaders that the cost of college is important to him. As a student at Georgia State University, he helped pay his way by loading trucks for UPS.
"You don't forget about those things," he told the crowd. "And I haven't forgotten about those things. It does matter when we sit down and try to make decisions. The board is very self-conscious about tuition, believe it or not."
He pointed to an increasing tuition rate, which has grown at about 2.2 percent a year. He said that's about in line with inflation. Wrigley also pointed to a Rice University study, which suggested that Georgia's public colleges and universities "are the best in the country" for saving money on textbooks.
After the meeting, he declined to share his personal beliefs about whether DACA students should get in-state tuition.
"I do not comment on litigation," he said around noon.
It's not clear if he knew the appeals court ruling had come out by that point; Kuck said he didn't hear about it until late Tuesday afternoon. At any rate, the Times Free Press asked Wrigley if he believed in-state tuition for DACA students would benefit Dalton city schools students, 70 percent of whom are Latino.
Wrigley did not answer the question, instead shifting the onus onto the state legislature.
"The board policy follows state law," he said. "State law would have to change before we could offer in-state tuition."
Asked about Wrigley's statement, Kuck disagreed Tuesday.
"The Board of Regents set the rules," he said. "And if a member of the Board of Regents doesn't know that, they should talk to their lawyers."
It's hard to say how many DACA recipients live in Dalton, where about 50 percent of the population is Latino. Multiple local immigration attorneys said they didn't know of an official count. As of September, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, about 21,600 active DACA recipients live in Georgia — the eighth most of any state in the country.
At Dalton State College, 26.8 percent of students are Latino this semester, spokeswoman Pam Partain said. School administrators have been working for years for the school to become the state's first Hispanic Serving Institution, a federal classification that would qualify Dalton State for more grant funding.
To receive the designation, the school must boast a Latino population of at least 25 percent.
For DACA students, class would be much cheaper if they could pay an in-state tuition rate. For a 15-credit semester, an out-of-state student pays $6,300. Georgia residents, meanwhile, pay $2,100.
Jaime Rangel, a DACA student who grew up in Murray County, said he was disappointed in the court ruling Tuesday. Still, he is optimistic that federal lawmakers will pass a law similar to Obama's executive order. Rangel has been paying piecemeal for classes at Dalton State, unable to pay for multiple semesters in a row. This week, he is applying to take three online courses at Dalton State in the spring semester.
Rangel is interning this fall at FWD.us, a lobbying group founded by Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg. The group aims to reform immigration policy. He said he has met with members of several Georgia congressmen's offices, including that of U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, who is responsible for the northwest corner of the state.
Rangel believes a long-term change is coming, which will help him and others pay for class.
"Once we do come up with a legislative solution, we won't have to put up with the court system at the local level," he said. "We will finally be able to pay in-state tuition."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.